Northam names first-ever diversity chief for Virginia state government

RICHMOND, Va. – Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday named a former university official as Virginia’s first director of diversity, equity and inclusion, charged with improving practices throughout the staffing and activities of state government.

Janice Underwood, who had been in charge of diversity iniatives at Old Dominion University, was selected for the role after a summer-long search. She will report directly to Northam and his chief of staff.

A cabinet-level position devoted to diversity across state government appears to be unusual nationwide. A spokesman for the National Governor’s Association, for instance, said he was unfamiliar with other states having such a position.

Northam, a Democrat, announced in May that he would create the position, after pledging to spend the rest of his term in office fighting racial inequity in the wake of a race-related scandal. He had defied calls to resign in February after a photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in black face and another in Klan robes.

Northam disavowed the photo, but admitted darkening his face for a dance contest that same year.

Since then, Northam has regularly consulted with black lawmakers and community leaders in what he describes as a quest to better understand racial issues so he can work to alleviate disparity.

“I am committed to making Virginia more equitable and inclusive, and that starts with my administration and our state government,” Northam said Monday in announcing Underwood’s appointment. “I look forward to having her as a partner in this important work.”

The governor’s office said Underwood will “implement a measurable, strategic plan to address systemic inequities” throughout state government. As part of that, she will come up with ways to create policy out of feedback from state employees and community leaders.

“I will be relying on my many personal and professional experiences as a teacher, an educational researcher, a parent and wife, and a diversity leader,” Underwood said in a news release. “I am dedicated to working with Virginians to promote lasting, institutional change at all levels of state government.”

Underwood has worked on diversity programs at ODU and coordinated partnerships between the university and several surrounding public school districts. She earned undergraduate and master’s degrees from Hampton University and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from ODU.

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